BY MARY KLAUS of The Patriot-News
Five tractor-trailer loads of pregnant heifers left Londonderry Twp. for Cuba yesterday in the nation’s first live cattle shipment since mad cow disease was discovered in a cow in Washington state in December 2003.
The shipment of 69 Jerseys and 132 Holsteins, all bred heifers from Pennsylvania, culminates more than a year of planning that even involved a meeting between state Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“Back when Cuba was supported by the Soviet regime, Cuba had enough dairy cattle to export,” said C. Gordon Thornhill, president of T.K. International of Culpepper, Va., the livestock exporting firm handling the shipment.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cuban dairy economy collapsed too,” he said. “Cuba didn’t have enough feed and now doesn’t have enough cows. So they really need these.”
The cows, which have spent weeks under quarantine at the Pennsylvania Holstein Association’s barn in Londonderry Twp., are valued at more than $300,000, said Ken Raney, the association’s executive director.
Thornhill said the cattle were being moved yesterday by tractor-trailer. One group was going to Indiantown, Fla., and the rest to Gulf Port, Miss.
The cows will rest for a day, then be loaded on boats to Cuba. The cows in Mississippi face a 48-hour ride on a motorized barge, and the ones in Florida will take a 36-hour trip.
Once the cows arrive in Havana, they will be quarantined for health checks before being delivered to either government farms or privately owned ones.
“With the mad cow thing going on, we had quite a job putting this together,” Thornhill said.
Wolff said he discussed dairy genetics in detail with Castro last year during a trade mission to Cuba. Wolff also met with Cuban agricultural officials.
“Since the first cattle from Pennsylvania shipped so successfully, Cuba is interested in purchasing another group of the state’s bred cattle,” Wolff said. “With more than $4.5 billion in agricultural products produced each year, Pennsylvania has an excellent opportunity to take advantage of this new market.”
Since the first discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state, no other cows in the United States have tested positive.
Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, was first discovered in England in 1989. Food contaminated with the disease can be fatal to humans. No human cases have been reported in America.